Sunday, February 23, 2014

Adam and Steve in the Garden of Eden: On Intimacy Between Men

Adam and Steve Hook Up in the Garden of Eden
I'm terribly amused by this vintage image of two men. The internet reveals no interesting information or even tantalizing clues. We're left to our own imagination as to why these nude men in hats are holding hands in the middle of a woodland scene while covering their junk with fig leaves.

My own projections? Clearly this is an early depiction of Adam and Steve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden for eating from the forbidden fruit (wink wink, nudge nudge). Right? What else would possibly be going on here?

I've inundated people who follow me on Tumblr with over a thousand images depicting vintage men in relationships. The internet is littered with blogs curating many of these same images. Many look at them and use our contemporary understandings of the world to understand historical issues.

The bloggers at Homo History, who do excellent work preserving and sharing many vintage photos depicting intimacy between men, write:

These photos represent just a small fragment of our gay history; unfortunately so much of it has purposely been destroyed. Since most of the men in these photos are unknown, it's pretty much impossible to tell it they were a gay couple or just "good friends." Most photographs of gay couples were eventually destroyed by horrified family members. For every photo that I may have mistakenly identified as gay, thousands more were burned or torn into pieces to keep a family secret.
I've Got A Secret
I have another secret here. The vast majority of these men weren't getting it on with each other. It's not even likely that many of these men would think they were gay if we transported them into our contemporary times. Some certainly had close intimate friendships that involved sex. There are myriad examples of vintage same-sex erotica on the web. Some day I'll have to write about this history of stag and physique magazines. Until then, feel free to visit these NSFW Tumblrs (here and here).

While Homo History nods to the fact that the men pictured in their blog might be good friends, the bloggers also end up winking at the notion that they could possibly be anything other than gay. I think we do ourselves a disservice--and these men from history a disservice--when we don't pay close attention to how men thought of themselves, their relationships, and the nature of physical touch between men as they viewed it.

In his book Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships John Ibson writes extensively on the topic of the changing nature and qualities of friendships and intimacy between men.

Prior to the American witch hunts of suspected homosexual men in the 1950s, the possibilities for how and where men were able to demonstrate closeness through physical touch was much greater. No one would have taken special notice of any of the men presenting themselves to a photographer to have their image taken. Even the most intimate images of men in a passionate embrace were acceptable. This is what friends did.

Mind you, there was no doubt a lot of hanky panky going on between men in the pre-1950s era. Men have been getting off with each other for as long as men have been around to get off. However, same-sex sexual activities weren't labeled as an identity until the end of the 19th century. When the term homosexuality was coined behavior became an identity. Men who engaged in sexual activity were quickly pathologized and transformed into a problem for medicine to solve.

The attachment of same-sex intimacy to an identity subject to treatment by the medical establishment helped push intimacy between men outside of the realm of day-to-day experience and into the closet. Intimacy between men disappeared as society turned gay men into the category of the tortured, feared, and despised other. Heterosexual men, fearing being labeled as the despised other, increasingly learned to avoid physical touch as well as any outward display of intimacy. Men who touched other men risked being identified as a homosexual. Straight men learned to avoid any intimate behavior with other men at all costs in order to avoid stigmatization.  Gay men learned to avoid physical intimacy to avoid harassment and physical violence.

In stated and unstated ways our amateur public historians on the internet catalogue images of seemingly gay men while projecting our contemporary tortured understandings of masculinity onto men from the past.

real men--heterosexual, courageous and physically strong--[are] defined against effeminate forms of masculinity. Where real men [are] emotionally wooden, gay men [are] like burst water valves: expressive, flamboyant and potentially contaminating. (click here for the full article by Alecia Simmonds)

Jason Reed/Reuters
Of course if we looked outside of the oppressiveness of the Unitied States we'd see some different images of intimacy between men. Take for example this moment where President Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah held hands. Watch this CBS video and see Americans (and American broadcast journalists) enact American style homonegativity and heteronormativity.

  • What do you think it would take to restore a culture in which intimacy (physical and emotional) between men could occur without threat or fear?
  • Do you even think it's important that men (gay, straight, bi, or heteroflexible) are allowed to have intimacy?

Far more than we realize, young males wait to be released from their heterosexual straightjackets. --Ritch Savin Williams & Kenneth Cohen

For more images of vintage men and their relationships (some gay, some straight) visit: Adam and Steven in the Garden of Eden: On Intimacy Between MenVintage Men: Innocence Lost | The Photography of William Gedney; It's Only a Paper Moon;Vintage Gay America: Crawford Barton; These Men Are Not Gay | This Is Not A Farmer | Disfarmer; Desire and Difference: Hidden in Plain Sight, Come Make Eyes With Me Under the Anheuser Bush, Hugh Mangum: Itinerant Photographer, Two men, Two Poses; Photos are Not Always What They Seem, Vintage Sailors: An Awkward Realization, Three Men on a Horse, Welkom Bar: Vintage Same Sex Marriage, Pretty in Pink: Two Vintage Chinese Men, Memorial Day Surprise: Vintage Sailor Love, Memorial Day: Vintage Dancing Sailors, The Curious Case of Two Men Embracing, They'll Never Know How Close We Were, Vintage Love: Roger Miller Pegram,Manly Affections: Robert Gant, Homo Bride and Groom Restored to Dignity, The Men in the Trees, The Girl in the Outhouse, Tommy and Buzz: All My Love,Men in Photo Booths, and Invisible: Philadelphia Gay Wedding c. 1957. You can also follow me on Tumblr.

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